Every night until 8th October something fantastic is happening in the small theatre at the back of The Kings Head pub in Islington – Puccini’s La Bohème is being performed by a talented and switched-on cast who are bringing this enormous work to a new kind of audience on a totally new set of terms.
The intimacy of the Kings Head Theatre itself gives this production its particular intrigue, and indeed it has been developed and adapted by a resident creative team in conversation with the space. The libretto has been radically but brilliantly reworked, stripping the cast back to the four key characters, Mimi and Ralph (i.e. Rodolfo in the original) and Mark (Marcello) and Musetta. This sharpens the focus on the ups and downs of these two toxic and intense relationships, involving the audience in their joys and conflicts with almost uncomfortable immediacy – for some gentlemen on the front row, quite literally!
The adapted storyline translates Puccini’s consumptive and delicate Mimi into a heroin addict whose initially casual habits lead to the fracturing of an otherwise loving relationship with Ralph and her dramatic and desperately undignified demise. This is the most central and focused of several comments on contemporary social issues, alongside pointed references to city pollution, London’s spiralling rents and ambivalent uses of social media. Usually such alterations personally make me squirm, but this version by King’s Head Artistic Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott, who plays Mimi in one of the two casts, makes for creasingly funny moments throughout the first half. In addition to the surface humour, which does occasionally border on the excessively silly, there are some excellent inward-facing tongue-in-cheek moments for those who know the original and the musical style of Puccini himself. The second half, which abandons the punning and swearing to go for the meat of the tragic storyline, is especially powerful.
The quality of the singing and musicianship is at the highest standard. Becca Marriott (Mimi) and Thomas Humphreys (Mark) particularly shone vocally – I’ll be watching their futures with interest. Meanwhile Matthew Kimble’s presentation of Ralph’s first act aria, equivalent to the iconic Che Gelida Manina (What cold hands!) was a moving emotional highlight. Although the diction is clear from all the cast members throughout I recommend purchasing a £3 programme to assist following the moments where, in duets and trios, characters sing simultaneously with different texts. I would advise, however, trying not to read ahead from what is being sung – I find it takes the edge of the humour or poignancy if you know what’s coming.
To be so physically close to music at this level is thrilling in itself. At this range the soaring voices literally resound through your body and listening becomes a more entire experience. Every minute detail of the actors’ faces is clear to everybody. The reduction of the La Bohème score to piano and cello was effective and didn’t feel lacking in the context of this production.
The King’s Head Theatre production of La Bohème is an excellent introduction to opera for those who have yet to experience it, and an exciting development in the shape and character of the craft. Madame Butterfly is coming up in the new year and previous productions at this location including Pagliacci, The Barber of Seville and The Elixir of Love, staged during the residency of the company OperaUpClose. The theatre at Kings Head is reliant on making £100 000 in addition to ticket sales annually, so if you would like the opportunity to go see a production in this style don’t dither about buying a ticket. At a running time of 1h 55min including interval this production is a perfect evening out, even on a weeknight. La Bohème at The King’s Head will challenge your perceptions of what Opera can and should be, whilst keeping you feeling alive through the strong presentation of Puccini’s masterful music.
 The proximity reminded me of the exhilarating experience of Multi-Story Orchestra in Peckham, where you’re so close to the orchestra at the front that the Violin bows poking your eyes out is a genuine risk. Do explore this exceptional project and annual music festival for similar experiences to the ones described at The Kings Head.
I went to see Akhnaten over a month ago, on Thursday 17th March. After a tough month I was so desperate to see it that I paid up the last of my month’s wages for a same-day returned ticket that cost me a good deal more than I’ve ever paid for a single ticket in my life.
There are a number of reasons. Firstly, Akhnaten is very rarely performed. Its last London staging was over 30 years ago in 1984. Unless fashions change it’s down to luck whether I will have the chance to see this work performed again in my lifetime Secondly I was driven to support the ENO in their moment of crisis. There however were nothing compared to a burning curiosity I had to understand more about the music and vision of Philip Glass. Glass is a composer who, along with a handful of others, pioneered and developed the sub-genre ‘minimalism’. Minimalism and Glass’s ideas have infiltrated and influenced the basis of today’s music – pop, classical, jazz, film and soundtracks alike – more than anybody ever could have predicted they would when they first caused such uproar in the 1970s-80s.
For those readers are non-theorists, in the next two paragraphs follows a brief ( (and therefore imperfect) description of minimalism in music.
Minimalism came as part of a wave of ‘reactive’ musical forms that mushroomed in the 20th century, as composers decided that everything expressible with the familiar form and structure of Western classical music as it was had indeed been expressed. Seeking to find new things to ‘do’ with music and new ways to convey ideas and emotions composers attempted various fundamental alterations to the Western Classical Music system. Some deconstructed the scale or familiar tones on which it is based (Schonberg’s Serialist/12-tone technique, atonal music), others dramatically altered the roles of composers and performers in the creative process of deciding what notes to play (‘graphic scores’, Ligeti, Stockhausen). Another approach questioned the concept of what could be considered a musical instrument (John Cage’s ‘Prepared Piano’, Hoffung’s Concerto for three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher). Minimalism’s contribution was, on the surface, less radical in some ways than these other examples, but arguably has had a more far-reaching and fundamental impact upon musical aesthetics in the 20th Century and beyond. Minimalism works by targeting principles of structure in music – from the micro level of the structure of melodies, to the larger structure of a suite or ‘symphonic’ piece, to the macro scale. Let’s say, the structure of an opera.
Minimalism is so called because it is characterised by repetition of small melodic, harmonic or rhythmic fragments with small but usually increasing variations to the repeated fragment. One effect is that, as a gross generalisation, the harmony in music tends to progress more gradually (slower harmonic rhythm) than in typical art music– but this does not necessarily mean that the music or piece has a slower emotional or intellectual development. This potential is something very fully explored in this exceptional production of Glass’s Akhnaten. In this way, Glass’s work often shifts the relationship between the main features of music – melody, harmony, and rhythm – inverting their importance or driving power in relation to one another. It is his rhythms and harmonies principally that create the haunting, and that stick in ones head long after their first hearing. Glass and his minimalist colleagues are not people who write ‘tunes’ you can sing along to.
All this is the basis of my fascination. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Like a sinner entering a church for the first time, so I approached Akhnaten.
The production at ENO is a collaboration between the English National Opera itself and LA Opera. Starring the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, the production uses fantastical lighting techniques combined with historically informed costume, movement and direction choices that are glazed with the glamour of a knowing orientalism.
The opening music is played over a mesmerising iridescent backdrop that shimmers, imperceptibly changing from green to copper to gold and through marbled combinations of the three through some unperceived technical wizardry. The subtle glowing effect was spoiled for me by harsh white, modernist geometrical projections of vaguely hieroglyphic shapes on top of this screen. As the only clean lines and projections of the entire production they were jarringly out of place. Although I spent the rest of the time trying to fathom the context they were supposed to fit with, I conclude that the producers were not brave enough to allow the music to speak for itself in this overture passage and added them to spoon-feed or ‘occupy’ the audience, which is a great shame.
Nonetheless the use of light throughout the opera performance itself was commendable. Glow-tubes were used in a particularly imaginative and enhancing way in the scene ‘The Window of Appearances’, exuding confidence in the audience’s ability to parse meaning from the kaleidoscopic array of symbols, representations and possibilities presented to them by the cast and crew.
The movement of all actors, and particularly the chorus, was cleverly stylised. Costumes and postures directly evoked Ancient Egyptian paintings and characters. The crucially important ENO Opera Chorus was supplemented by the presence of jugglers, coordinated by Sean Gandini, whose work with variously sized white balls provided a visualisation both of the rhythm and pace of Glass’s music, but also of its structure through measured and coordinated display. Happily it is also historically consistent with the Egyptological stylisation, since the first archaeological evidence of toss juggling in fact comes from Ancient Egypt.
Apart from the consistent movement of the juggling balls, all physical action in this production of Akhnaten is paced with creeping intensity. All actors move in ultra slow motion at all times, which results in a peculiarly hypnotic effect. Just as one watches a child growing day by day, it seems as if little or nothing is happening, only for the theatre-goer to realise abruptly that whilst they have been focusing on one area of the stage the entire scene has completely changed. This kinetic effect also cleverly follows the pattern of minimalist music, which develops gradually in minute and sometimes barely perceptible ways to create dramatic and varying emotional and intellectual states.
Roth Costanzo has a truly unique voice. Seething with drama, he has an air-curdling tone that he renders intentionally thin and cutting for much of this performance. Roth Costanzo is an erudite but passionately human performer who really draws his audience into his world. His portrayal of Akhnaten was bold and complex. He fully embodies this man’s belief in his absolute power, whilst throughout simultaneously revealing his palpable frailty and mortality. Although I admire Roth Costanzo immensely I did feel his tone occasionally needed more colour and breadth in the trios to blend and mingle better with the esoteric voices of his two female co-star companions. That said, there was truly exciting chemistry and dynamism between Roth Costanzo, Emma Carrington as Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye.
Carrington brings to Nefertiti a full-bodied womanly voice, the depth and resonance of which contrasted wonderfully with the androgynous Akhnaten, making for spellbinding duet and trio work between the two. Glass scored the characters to have a similar vocal range (tessitura/pitch), which processes the unity of the characters as historical figures. The tensions of the dissonances and consonances between the parts is sweetened and heightened by the singers’ differences in vocal tone (timbre), which is especially exciting as their political and sexual relationship plays out in their mesmerising Love Duet.
As Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye, Bottone provides the stand-out characterisation of the production from an acting perspective. Whilst having some of the most demanding vocal lines in the entire piece Bottone pitches her role well, never overpowering the other two lead characters. She is required to emote and move the audience through micro-expression and minimal movements in both death scenes of the pieces, and successfully provides a great deal of the production’s emotional charisma.
This production of Akhnaten juxtaposes human nakedness and the insinuation thereof with opulence and power. Most costumes for the Pharoah and his Queen are translucent, revealing their bodies as a constant reminder of their humanity. However, like some of the other symbolic work in this production, by the end I felt it was overused. The allusion to nakedness continued in scenes even where the reminder of humanity was less central to the tensions or themes of the scene, such as in Akhnaten’s Sun Aria in Act 2. As a result, by the final act in which Akhnaten is overthrown by his people, the potence of this visual cue was greatly reduced, although still salient enough to be moving. Similarly, the juggling was possibly somewhat overdone. I was particularly disappointed at the end when the balls, which represented Akhnatens religious empire and political reign fell more than once. Surely, this should have been the one point at which the production should have curtailed their theme of developed repetition?
THE GAME CHANGER
Visually fantastic, technically excellent and musically exceptional, this production of Akhnaten is as artistically important as it was enthralling to watch. My minor criticisms of thematic work are personal opinion, and did not affect the fact that this is one of the most incredible works of art I have ever had the honour of experiencing. Glass has changed the musical landscape of the world forever with this piece, even though it is performed so rarely, and this production has set a benchmark for others both within this genre and out of it. I hope it will not be 30 years before it returns to London again.
This curious production draws together the simplest and the most technically advanced of special effects devices, running with the original spirit of Mozart’s comic opera The Magic Flute. Driven by the principles of entertainment, ‘magic’ and the spirit of the music, the result is an unusual piece of sung theatre bringing something quite unique to a well-worn favourite.
On Thursday 11th March my Opera Buddy and I rocked up to the London Coliseum early to benefit from the Opera Undressedscheme run by the ENO. Opera Undressed offers members on a waiting list the opportunity to buy limited tickets for a massively discounted price of £20 a head, which gives access to a brief pre-show talk, a pair of the best seats in the house, and a cheeky G&T at an after-party with cast and crew. The scheme is excellent and I strongly recommend it to both opera lovers and opera virgins (at whom it is principally aimed). Providing a well-structured and introduction to opera through emailed synopses and the pre-show talk, it is as financially and intellectually accessible as it professes to be. The tone and spirit with which the scheme is delivered decidedly enhances the experience both of the opera in general and this production in particular.
The current production brings together a mish mash of stylistic theatrical devices, from the modern and post-modern to the very old school. The birds of Papageno the Bird Catcher are represented extremely effectively by fluttering folded sheets of A4 papers which make a flock in the hands of chorus actors in black. However in other places the chorus is in specific costume and spatially organised (‘blocked’) in a very traditional way. The use of space is both minimalist, with no specific set or scenery, yet at the same time it is highly technical, shaped mainly by a large square of staging attached at all four corners to motorised pulleys which raise, lower and angle it into slides, mountains, two-storey buildings and many things more besides throughout the show. A key feature of this production is its treatment of the Orchestra, which is raised within the pit to be almost on the same level as the main stage. Fully lit, the music and orchestra are integrated into the performance space, and “The Magic Flute” is the orchestral flautist herself, who ‘lends’ her instrument, and occasionally her talent, to the romantic lead as a talisman in times of rejoicing or distress.
Given the confusing density of different ideas, from different styles and periods of theatrical thought, the production hangs together very well as a piece. It must be said that taking away the trappings of 18th Century costumery and pomp reveals the thinness of the narrative upon which the opera is based. However Simon McBurney has intentionally restructured this piece around the very thing the libretto was created for: special effects.
In Christopher Cook’s illuminating pre-show talk he explained to Opera Undressed goers that the libretto for The Magic Flute was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, who in addition to being a friend of Mozart was renowned in theatre at the time for his talent with special effects. The Magic Flute was always intended to be a visual spectacle, and a challenge for the theatre’s in house ‘magicians’. This production makes exceptional use of modern-day magic in the form of digital projections and a telephone-box sized sound-effects studio for creating and enhancing live sets and sound effects whilst the performance is in action. Comedic chalk drawings title the Acts, introduce characters and produce beautiful backgrounds whilst watering cans and scrunchy paper adds to the sound world Mozart created. The ‘tests’ of fire and water endured by Tamino and Pamina in the second act are particularly breath-taking, and so seamless in their execution that as an audience member excited a welcome experience of wonder and awe.
However the main thing that seals the production as a success is the strength of character and acting brought by the cast. James Creswell as Sarastro deserves a particular mention for his exceptional technique, resounding and rich voice and entirely believable performance of the sometimes controversial High Priest. The storyline hangs on Sarastro being both a credible ‘good guy’, and his maligned reputation being also understandable. Creswell achieves this tricky balance, whilst keeping us spellbound with his phenomenal voice. On the night we attended Lucy Crowe was ill and unable to sing Pamina, however we did not feel her loss at all. Reisha Adams, who stepped in a few hours before the performance, delivered Pamina’s arias with a clear and glorious tone that established and developed a believable and realistic portrayal of the character’s conflicting and genuine affections. Though one of the smallest solo roles, Soraya Mafi was a pleasant shock treat as Papagena, and the fantastic acting and spookily bell-like voices of the three ‘ancient children’ were confounding in their freakishly mature portrayal of ghostly decay.
Of course the real star of The Magic Flute is the wrathful and bitter Queen of the Night. She is almost always portrayed as a formidable and almost glorious super-power, a diva in a glittering ball-gown and usually with mad and enormous hair or headgear. In this production however, she is a frail, grey-haired old woman, withered and bitter, and very often in a wheelchair. Her venom, her hatred and her manipulative hang-ups make her real, a tangible and almost familiar character from a world we know. Ambur Braid stopped the show with her aria in the first act, presenting an incredible combination of vocal acrobatics with an exceptional level of acting. The way she moved and walked was astoundingly accurate in its depiction of the comportment of the extremely elderly, and this level of energy and character never slipped throughout the play. Although the famous aria in the second half was not the most technically perfect rendition it was one of the most powerful I have seen. Not only did Braid sing the opening phrases of the aria whilst hurtling herself across the stage in a wheelchair, she performed the entire aria, which is one of the highest and most difficult in the entire vocal repertoire, sitting down and very often leaning over as she caressed the head of her daughter Pamina. Not only was this a positively Olympic achievement by Braid, the energy and level of characterisation it brought to the aria was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The emotional power of the frail, wheedling, sobbing mother, stroking her daughter’s hair as she begged her to murder her enemy, was on a totally different level to the foot-stamping, hollering, shrieking poltergeist that usually is portrayed in this scene. As a result the turmoil of Pamina’s character with her conflicting emotions makes much more sense, and the frailties of the underlying story are significantly relieved.
This ‘undressed’ production is certainly very strange, drawing as it does from an inconsistent and confusing range of stylistic influences. However, it is driven by masterful staging and strong character acting, which makes up greatly for the flaws and imperfections of the original story and frames Mozart’s music in a playful but supported, believable world.
Note: This video uses footage from the previous cast/staging of this production at the ENO
Special Thanks to my Opera Buddy, Paris Andrew, who helped me thrash out exactly what I thought about this Opera experience.
Anthropology ruined my life. After three years of not having time to finish a (fiction) book for pure pleasure, despite my habit of always carrying one with me, I went into a bookshop the other week to pick up something to read while travelling. I found myself stopped dead, captivated, and struggling to choose two from a selection including Hegel’s Philosophy, Aquinas, Kirkegaard, Aristotle’s Nichomadean Ethics, and even titles such as Leviathan and Wealth of Nations. I have just graduated (maybe that’s part of it), and here I am sitting in a patisseries in my free time, reading “Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs!”. I don’t know whether to embrace it, or kick myself in the head.
However, that is not the main part of it. Anthropology has changed me, fundamentally. It has given me new eyes and a new mind, and now I simply can’t function in the world without my brain launching a critical analysis of the most basic or mundane things that may go on in front of my eyes. Actions, events, sentences, marketing campaigns…. I describe film endings as “problematic” and flinch at portrayals of “the poor” in charity videos. When something like this happens (which is a couple of times a day), I either suffer the frustration of a suppressed polemic in my head, or I say to the nearest person who will listen, “As an anthropologist…” and proceed to describe The-World-According-to Sahlins/Affect Theorists/The Subaltern Studies Group/Strathern [the possibilities are endless] and why they and/or the subject in question are right, wrong, peculiar, fascinating. happening, impossible, or really about something entirely other than they appear.
I have to laugh at myself when I do this now, not least because I hadn’t noticed that I did it until one friend quipped, “Don’t you ‘As an Anthropologist’ me!”, and another burst into hysterical laughter. Apparently, I do it all the time. In fact the raison d’être of this blog is not least to be an outlet for those frustrated and out-of-place thoughts that constantly disrupt my experience of everyday life, and which when voiced threaten to disrupt my company’s patience – among other things.
I think that the problem is well approached by thinking about what Martha Nussbaum said about teaching anthropology. I quote extremely loosely from I-can’t-quite-remember where, but she said that the aim of teaching anthropology is to get students to rethink and challenge pretty much everything that they have taken for granted about the world. As the trusty formula goes, the role of the anthropologist is to “make the strange familiar, but to make the familiar strange” (Miner 1956). Which is great. Anthropology opens your eyes to a million and one things you never even knew how to see before – some of which you grow to wish, at times, that you never had. On the other hand, this can make it extremely difficult to have a basic conversation with somebody.
The thing is, once you have deconstructed the taken-for-granted, familiar concepts of daily life and human culture, you find yourself having new taken-for-granteds that are different to everybody else’s. After that, you start to take for granted those deconstructed taken-for-granteds, in all their strangeness, without even noticing. You don’t know how to think of nations as other than imagined, or of geography as any kind of real other than a politico-historical ‘hyperreal’, not to speak of how you think of ‘history’ and the ‘politico-historical’. Anthropologists do not (generally) take for granted (these days) that ‘sexuality’ is always a meanginful and locatable concept, that ‘biology’ and ‘sex/gender’ are self-evident, immutable, concrete and infallible referents. Anthropologists even question the idea that there is such a thing as an individual or personal ‘self’. However, when you make a reference to one of these concepts in everyday conversation it can in fact stop the conversation dead – like the time when my family friends, around the dinner table, were talking about birds as if they had human-style family relationships, and I pointed out that it was arguably only possible to think in such a romanticised, detached way about animals because of the emergence of the middle class in the late medieval period, before which both peasants and the aristocracy had, at opposite ends of the scale, closer relationships with animals and maintained no illusions about animals’ actual behaviour. The table was silent, almost comically, for a full two minutes…
This is not the only such incident. When you make use of these concepts, putting them back into the world you took them out of, you can feel the discomfort and confusion around you (after all, you are flash-bombing peoples’ taken-for-granteds, without so much as having the presence of mind to think twice about whether it is appropriate or called for). In fact, you feel like, look like, and actually are, the idiot in that situation. In that situation, you are the one who cannot see the obvious and is talking nonsense. By some bizarre twist, what you “know” not to precisely be the full story is still very much “the case” in the actual world, and still holds as if it were the full story without an anthropologist talking nonsense. And what nonsense it is, too!
Despite this, I hold that it is the very same kind of critical deconstruction of given assumptions that makes anthropology so valuable in its own right. I maintain that, of any one discipline, it has the most potential to contribute meaningfully to the world, to society and to human life. Anthropology has the potential to provide explanations, interpretations, translations, reflections, critique, and expose grossly generalising and sometimes damaging assumptions where nobody had hitherto noticed there were assumptions being made at all.
How to realise this potential is, of course, the subject of sore debate, undertaken with crippling embarrassment among anthropologists. Anthropologists are uncomfortably aware that for the most part, it is only other anthropologists who read ethnographies (anthropologist research). When policy-makers do get their hands on anthropology, it tends to feel more like appropriation and twisting of words than the otherwise desired engagement, leading sometimes to what are ‘disastrous results’ from the anthropologists’ perspective. Worse still, the anthropologists and anthropological concepts which parts of the general public may have heard of – such as Lévi-Strauss or Cultural Relativism – are often grossly misunderstood, outdated, and/or completely unrepresentative of the discipline now. Whence this irony whereby anthropology, the discipline that is supposed to be least disjunct from the ‘real’ world, often lands me in a situation where I realise just how little my own now-taken-for-granted (post-deconstruction) view of the world is not only unusual and profoundly off-the-wall, but at times quite absurd?
There is something anthropologically fascinating about the ways in which the ontological position I take within or in relation to a taken-for-granted world when I speak [less as a person than] “as an Anthropologist” so often leaves me outside that world, or misunderstood, creating jarring moments within it (sorry guys. That one was for the anthropologists – it’s supposed to be funny, honest). However, I am more than happy to suffer a few nodes of confusion and disjuncture in my daily life. I don’t often feel that way at the time it happens, but the thing is, when you habitually stop taking the taken-for-granted for granted, you realise something that takes your breath away: there is no such thing as “the mundane” or “the ordinary”. Everything is extraordinary – such that the ordinary itself is impossible to find once you really start looking.